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Men is set in an all-male boarding school in Australia in the early 1980s. The narrator, who remains nameless, is a prefect at the school. One evening a fellow student comes to his room and tells him he is running away. 

The story follows the school’s and the students’ responses to the runaway. The school authorities and the students are eager to explain the escape as the product of a single, odd individual.  

Many of the boys have been emotionally abandoned by their well-to-do families. The strategies the boys learn to help them cope with their loveless surroundings – dishonesty, selfishness and violence – are at once abhorrent and, to some extent, understandable. 

When the runaway’s disappearance can no longer be ignored, the institution brings in the police to investigate, and the ‘threat’ of media coverage looms.

In Store Price: $22.95 
Online Price:   $21.95



Ebook version - $AUD9.00 upload.


ISBN: 978-0-6482230-9-2
Format: Paperback
Number of pages: 156
Genre: Fiction

Cover: Clive Dalkins

Delo Johnson
Publisher: Zeus Publications
Date Published:  2018
Language: English


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Sunday evening. The study hour.


There was a pinewood desk and a plastic swivel chair and a leno curtain over an aluminium casement window. High on a short wall an electric radiator glowed a lurid Martian red. And on a long wall standard-issue texts sat askew on a shelf that wobbled in its anodised brackets. On the door was affixed a giant poster.

Before me, atop the pine, and obscuring some small portion of the various initials and insults and amateurish depictions of human genitalia that were there inscribed, was a russety calculus primer and a single piece of feint-ruled foolscap. Line after line of defective algebraic contortions scratched the page black. It was a primitive function. A hideous beast involving inverse trigonometric polynomials and second-order logarithms. There was no denying the punitive aspect. And the more attempts I made at the thing, the more preposterous my answers became.

I flipped to a fresh page. In short arcs I twisted back and forth on the swivel chair, as with incisors I gnawed on the butt of a pen. A lick of cold seeped in from behind the leno. The radiator creaked and incinerated the motey air. A stale biscuity smell drifted down. I stared at the beast and swore that only one of us was going to get out of there alive.

It was at this point, I believe, that Harrison stormed in.

Flaxen-hair, burnished teal eyes, chin like a spear-tip. The kid was one of my subordinates. A fellow of one of those intermediate years. Fourteen? Fifteen? I can’t recall which.

I offered a standard welcome and without taking the pen from my mouth asked him what he knew about insoluble antiderivatives.

There were several squeaks. The memory is clear; hurried anxious steps on the waxy hardwood caused the sneakers to squeak. Once, twice, three times; a timid rubbery ‘Eek’.

A shaky hand pulled the zip higher on the civvy jacket. Then a skittish tug on the collar, a quick tamping down of the perfect hair and a glance at the wristwatch.

‘Nothing?’ I said, chewing on the pen. He knew nothing about line integrals?

The trembling hands were shoved into tan corduroy pockets. A sneaker squeaked again and a look of incredulity flashed across the glabrous face. He muttered something to do with somebody’s or something’s being a total waste of human effort. Then, more clearly, he said he was done. He said he wasn’t bullshitting me. He said he knew he didn’t have to tell me why.

With the chewing came suddenly the taste of ink. Bitter and cyanic, like citrus seed. I tossed the pen onto the desk and spat desperately into a woollen sleeve.

I eyed the kid across a navy arm and said I was sure I didn’t know what he was getting at. The tongue worked in stabbing circles inside the mouth, gathered more of the foul spittle, and deposited it on the sleeve.

‘I’m fucking well leaving,’ he said. In the study room next door a fellow was talking. An inflected tone of boyish surprise. Harrison lowered his voice. ‘Tonight,’ he said. ‘This very minute. The whole lot can fuck themselves. Every last psychotic one.’

From the radiator came a brittle creak. And in the men’s room down the hallway somebody flushed a toilet.

The last of the ink taste ended up in a couple of globs on the hardwood. A dry strip of sleeve was employed to wipe the lips. I made a noise of relief and told him to be sure to write. Though I’d see him in a day or two. Once his Ma and Pa had found him hiding under his bed and cursed and spanked him and dragged his teary ass back to the hellhole in which they all seemed to think we belonged.

The hands came out of the pockets now and went to work on one another, picking fiercely at the cuticles.

‘You’re it,’ he said. He shook the spotless head. ‘Nobody has been told a thing. There’s a place or a person I know, but apart from that I have no real plan. Aside from keeping out of this miserable asylum. I know you understand why, but no living force can drag me back.’ There was a wince, and a tiny ribbon of skin got flicked onto the hardwood. ‘Capisce?’

I raised and then lowered an eyebrow. ‘I’m it?’

‘You’re it.’

‘Another ignorant intern?’

He pointed at my shirt. ‘Because of your badges.’

‘Ah.’ I brought a hand up to a lapel and absently patted one of the things to which he was referring. ‘To whom you would tell nothing.’ I lowered the hand and spoke slowly. ‘And so who must know …?’

‘Less than nought.’

There was laughter from next door now. I said again that I’d see him soon, sulking in the back seat of his ma’s limited edition whatever it was, and that I looked forward to hearing all about his boys’ own adventure holiday. On Tuesday or Wednesday.

The sneakers squeaked again as he came in closer. Leaning down, he whispered in my ear. ‘Not. In. This. Fucking. Life.’

A tickle of cold rippled over the narrow band of flesh between pullover collar and cropped hair. Harrison stood in the middle of the little room and ripped off more cuticle.

Just like that clown, Limburger, I thought. Gone Sunday, re-incarcerated by Thursday. Made the poor kid’s life a misery. All the critical attention. Couldn’t even get failure right. His old man had left bruises around his neck. And then back here the usual pressures were applied to the usual sensitive spots. The boy used to wake up in the middle of the night screaming for Mother, and then when he realised where he was he screamed again. Institutionalisation: not what a social phobic needed.

Harrison checked his wristwatch and made a face of pain and said he really had to go.

The fellow next door laughed again.

I told him I looked forward to getting his postcard, and then let my gaze wander. Curtain, shelf, radiator, poster. It was Malcolm X. He took up almost the entire door. Damn thing needed straightening too. The problem was interminable. A slippage of age. The glossy sheet’s upper half was forever buckling and creeping wonkily down the door, as little by little the wads of sticky putty lost their moisture and failed.

‘Clear?’ Harrison said, in relation to I cannot remember what.

I thought. The room’s previous occupant had inherited X, as had the occupant before him. But that was as far back as I knew it went. This gave X at least four years on the back of the door. I couldn’t decide if this meant he was old or still pretty young.

Harrison said it again. ‘Clear?’

I held up a hand to give the impression that I had to think. The previous occupant had, like me, been an office bearer. He too wore faux-silver crests on his shirt lapels, and had authority to order fellows around, and to punish the disobedient. When he left, he placed the poster rolled up and standing in a corner alongside a similarly rolled-up poster of some grand many-turreted Bavarian schloss. I had some basic notion of who Malcolm X was and what he stood for. But the specifics of the schloss in Bavaria escaped me. It was enough to know that it stood for inbreeding and daffy nostalgia. And so X went up on the door, and the schloss got tossed in the garbage.

There was another squeak as again the kid came in close. ‘Now,’ he said. ‘Here.’

A hand had reached into a trouser pocket and pulled from it a slip of paper. ‘Here,’ he said again, shoving the slip at me. I took it in two fingers and placed it on the desk, alongside the primer. Upon it, in a fine blue hand, was written a telephone number.

He turned to go. He told me to call him. Saturday. Late. He said he wanted to know what they were all doing; the Administrator and the Head and whoever. He said it wouldn’t change anything. He just wanted to check in, maybe save people from worry. To let them know he was still breathing. He said I could tell them it was he who had called me. He said that this meant I could do nothing and still appear to be the responsible big guy. ‘What do you say?’

I had of course contemplated throwing out X too. Many times. In addition to its crumbly slippage down the door, it was also irreparably ripply-looking from having been tightly rolled. And then there were the greasy coin-shaped spots in the corners and at the equatorial margins, where the putty was stuck.

Harrison was at the door. ‘Clear?’ he said again, over a shoulder.

I lowered the raised hand. If I got rid of X, I’d still be left with the problem of having to replace him. I scoffed. X was black, and poor, and a school dropout, and dead. And so, among the young white well-to-do males of the institution he had real cachet. I could, I supposed, get hold of Luther King. He too was dead. But then he was a pastor, and a Nobel laureate, and known for his advocacy of non-violence, and somehow more mainstream than X. And frankly, around the institution, he impressed nobody.

‘Call me late,’ he said again. ‘After midnight. When the animals are asleep.’

I think I nodded. I might have waved.

Harrison pulled on the door. He looked back and told me again that the entire sick lot could fuck themselves.

I probably nodded again.

Squeaky steps receded quickly down the hallway, a door slammed, and the regular Sunday evening hush fell like so much distant air. Next door, the fellow was singing. Overhead, the radiator made its tinny noise.

I stared at X, who stared out at a wall. The gaze was thoughtful and kind. The tip of a forefinger nestled alongside an eye of the long handsome face. God only knows what he was thinking.

I took a new pen from a drawer and resumed work on the beast in the primer. So it was, I decided again, twisting back and forth on my seat: one of us was going to die.




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